The Old Quarry Trail produced the usual assortment of late October birds, with the only birds of interest being a male Red-winged Blackbird hanging out near the boardwalk, a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets, several Purple Finches, and – most surprising of all – a young Savannah Sparrow. It was associating with two female-type Purple Finches at the boardwalk, and when it landed at the top of a spruce tree, Jon identified it immediately despite the late date and completely wrong habitat (Savannah Sparrows are open grassland birds, while the Old Quarry Trail consists of a marsh surrounded by mixed/coniferous forest). It sat at the top of the tree for a few minutes so we got a nice long look at the bird despite the distance. It flew off when the two Purple Finches did.
We found other birds just as interesting at Andrew Haydon Park. Upon our arrival, I was captivated by the fountain in the western pond; the wind was blowing the spray off to the side, and the sun shining through the droplets created a colourful rainbow (click to enlarge).
The single female Lesser Scaup on the western pond had been joined by a moulting male; patches of grey herringbone-patterned feathers could be seen amongst the brown of its non-breeding (or perhaps juvenal) plumage. While we sometimes see over a dozen of these diving ducks on the ponds in the fall, so far this year I’ve seen only the two.
Jon spotted a small Cackling Goose standing on the far shore of the pond, so we crossed the bridge near the bandshell to get closer. A small flock of waxwings was feeding on the berries in the trees by the bridge, and although I was hoping for Bohemian Waxwings, they all turned out to be Cedar Waxwings. I was somewhat surprised to see a flock of them this time of year, as most of these birds have already flown south. The few that do stick around in the winter tend to join large flocks of Bohemian Waxwings.
We started working our way around to the Cackling Goose, but something spooked it before we could get close. It jumped into the water started swimming toward the opposite shore, so we took some time to watch the shorebirds on the river instead. A Greater Yellowlegs was still present on the western mudflats near the creek mouth, but a group of 14 shorebirds was foraging much closer to shore. The nine Dunlin and four White-rumped Sandpipers weren’t a surprise, but the single juvenile Black-bellied Plover was.
Black-bellied and American Golden-Plovers in juvenal plumage can be tricky to differentiate. The diagnostic black “wing-pits” of the Black-bellied Plover are present in all plumages, but can only be seen when the wings are extended – such as in flight. The thick bill and weak contrast between the crown and the face help identify this as a Black-bellied Plover. The Black-bellied Plover is also larger than the American Golden-Plover, with a chunkier and less attenuated build, a thicker neck and chest, and a larger bill. The American Golden-Plover’s wingtips project well beyond the tail, while the Black-bellied Plover’s wingtips only extend slightly beyond the tip of the tail. Finally, the thinner neck and smaller head of the American Golden-Plover give it a dove-like profile.
Eventually the birds moved further west, leaving me alone with a male Green-winged Teal just starting to moult back into breeding plumage.
I scanned the river after that, and was happy to find two more species for my year list. Three Red-breasted Mergansers were swimming fairly close to shore, and much further out I saw eight Black Scoters riding the waves! Although not the largest flock of Black Scoters that I’d ever seen, this was the first time I’d seen this species in two years, so I was thrilled to see them. These two species brought my Ottawa year list over the 200 mark – a feat I wasn’t able to accomplish last year.
After seeing our fill of the shorebirds and diving birds on the river, Jon and I started scanning the geese on the western pond for the Cackling Goose. We eventually spotted it standing on the rocks in the southeast corner, so we slowly began making our way around the pond toward it. I was hoping to get some better photos than the ones I’d taken the day before, and this time the Cackling Goose didn’t spook as we approached it; the goose stayed where it was until we got within about 20 feet, which Jon said was as close as he’s ever been to one.
The field marks I’d noticed in the partial overcast on Sunday were seen even more clearly in the bright sunshine: the tiny bill, the knobby forehead, the indentation in the white cheek patch just below the eye.
Because the Cackling Goose has such a tiny neck, its head appears quite small, even disproportionately so compared to the nearby Canada Geese. This gives the relaxed birds an almost “pin-headed” look that makes them easy to pick out among flocks of Canada Geese.
It was great to see the Cackling Goose up close after my distant views of it in the middle of the pond the day before. More commonly seen in the fall, they present a fascinating identification challenge any place where large concentrations of geese are gathered.